Making Alenquer a food destination

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In the 19th century, Alenquer was one of Portugal’s premier wine regions. Its fortunes waned for much of the 20th century. But the tide turned and Alenquer rightly regained its status as a prized wine destination. A young chef called João Simões wants to help Alenquer become a food destination as well.

João apprenticed at the Ritz and worked in many posh hotels and restaurants. Three years ago, he decided to return to his roots to recover and renew the culinary traditions of the region where he was born. He uses local products like quails and Rocha pears and works with farmers on projects like producing goat cheese in the Montejunto mountain. His restaurant is called Casta 85. Casta means varietal, a reference to the region’s wine tradition. The number 85 refers to the chef’s birth year.

The dining room is decorated with furniture procured in the chef’s village. It is a pleasant space that overlooks the Alenquer river. This tributary of the Tagus flows proudly through town, reveling from the praise it received in Luis Vaz de Camões’ epic poem, the Lusíadas.

Casta 85’s service is relaxed and attentive. Ana Santana, our genial server, met the chef when they both played in a brass band. The chef’s old instrument is now part of the decoration and some of the band’s brashness inspires the intense, harmonious food.

We tried appetizing alheira croquettes with apple sauce and crisp green bean tempura with garlic mayonnaise. Next, came a delicious quail Brás style served with a quail egg, fried onion and cassava chips. Our meal ended with a luscious duck leg served over a risotto of mushrooms and asparagus.

We returned from Alenquer through a scenic road that took us though countless vineyards. We can’t wait to go back to visit the wine quintas and have another great lunch at Casta 85!

Casta 85 is located at Largo do Espírito Santo, 31 in Alenquer, tel. 915 761 911.

Mugasa

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Bairrada is a region in the center of Portugal known for its refreshing sparkling wine and its “leitão” (roasted piglet). The best leitão in Bairrada comes from a restaurant called Mugasa located in the middle of nowhere in a small village called Fogueira.

The restaurant’s owner, Álvaro Nogueira, retired from a desk job and opened a small café in 1981. He wanted to learn the art of roasting piglets to turn his café into a restaurant. But the learning curve was steep until one of his cousins, a master roaster, offered to teach him.

After this jump start, Álvaro kept perfecting his art. In 1991, he entered a competition organized by a gastronomic society and won first prize.

“Why is roasting so difficult?” we asked Álvaro. ” Every pig is different, with a different size and fat content. We use six wood-fired ovens and every oven is different. We have to make constant adjustments to guarantee perfection. That is why we only roast four piglets per oven, to have time to make all the necessary adjustments.”

“In the first 20 minutes, the oven has to be very hot, between 280 and 300 degree Celsius to make the outside crunchy. Then we cover the wood with ashes to bring down the temperature. There are many details so we have to pay close attention. The traditional seasoning made with garlic, lard, white pepper, and salt is important but you cannot use it to cover up mistakes.”

We sat at the table to try Mugasa’s leitão. It is indeed remarkable, crunchy on the outside, succulent on the inside, with just enough seasoning to accentuate the taste of the meat.

Álvaro is very proud of the celebrities that drive to Fogueira just to eat at his restaurant. But he is even more proud of his son Ricardo. “My son is the best master roaster in Portugal,” Álvaro said smiling. “He learned my secrets and discovered new ones.”

Many Bairrada wine makers eat regularly at Mugasa, so you often overhear discussions about weather conditions and grape maturation. The restaurant offers some of the best wines from these producers at very attractive prices.

The formula for Mugasa’s success is easy to write down but hard to replicate: amazing leitão plus great Bairrada wine = unforgettable meals.

Mugasa is located at Largo da Feira, Fogueira, Aveiro, tel. 234 741 061

 

Buxa

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Natália Maia, the manager of the Guimarães pousada, recommended Buxa, a small restaurant right in the center of the Guimarães historic district.

As soon as we arrived, we recognized all the traits of the restaurants we favor.  First, the place was completely full. Second, there were people without reservation trying to charm the waiters into giving them a table (can you believe their nerve?) Third, there was a rhythm to the service: waiters moved with agility and grace to the beat of the kitchen drums. Fourth, the menu is small, focused on a few perfect preparations. And fifth, the price is right.

We loved the codfish with broa, a symphony of traditional flavors of the Portuguese cuisine: codfish, olive oil, corn bread (broa) and potatoes. The black pork was grilled to perfection, salty and satisfying. The tripe cooked with beans had layers of wonderful flavors (if tripe is too adventurous for you it is worthwhile ordering it just to eat the amazing beans). The octopus was tender and delicious. And the “alheira,” a sausage from nearby Mirandela, was spectacular.

We confess that we arrived at Buxa without reservations and charmed the waiter into giving us a table. But we promptly made reservations for the next day. The food at Buxa is too good to leave to chance!

Buxa is located at Largo da Oliveira 23 in Guimarães, tel. 252 058 242. Reservations are a must.

Dona Luisa’s famous codfish recipe

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A year ago, we had a memorable meal at Solar dos Amigos, a restaurant in the small village of Guisado near Caldas da Rainha. We returned this year for another great experience. Our lunch started with succulent lamb chops, grilled to perfection. They were followed by a wispy, tasty “Bacalhau à Campino” (peasant style codfish) served inside the hearty country bread that is baked at the restaurant.

Dona Luisa Nunes, the restaurant’s owner and chef, is in great form and so is her octogenarian father who continues to produce a delightful wine that pairs perfectly with the food served at the Solar.

When we praised her famous codfish Campino style, dona Luisa offered to give us the recipe so we could share it with you, dear reader. Follow the instructions and you’ll have a delicious codfish meal. But, will it taste as good as when dona Luisa prepares it?  Not a chance!

Codfish Campino style

Soak 4 slices of salted codfish for two days, changing the water periodically to remove the salt.

Boil the cod for 15 minutes. Reserve the water, remove the skin and the bones, and shred the fish by hand. Boil a green cabbage and drain the water (dona Luisa favors a pusa-drum-head cabbage, known in Portugal as “repolho coração de boi”).  Open the top of a country bread, remove the inside of the bread and soak it for 5 minutes in the water used to boil the codfish. Carefully drain the water from the bread.

Combine olive oil and sliced garlic in a frying pan. Add the soaked bread, the shredded codfish, the cabbage and 2 pounds of cooked red beans. Season with salt and pepper and let the mixture simmer gently for a few minutes. Place the mixture inside the country bread, cover with the bread lid, season with olive oil and place in the oven for a few minutes, until the bread turns golden. Decorate with parsley sprigs and serve.

Solar dos Amigos is located on a small village called Guisado, 100 km north of Lisbon. The restaurant’s address is Rua Principal, 49, Guisado, Caldas da Rainha. Even though the restaurant is large, it is a good idea to make reservations. Their telephone number is 262-877-135. Click here for their website.

Eating with the best people in Vila Real

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“I’m sorry, but we cannot accommodate you. We won’t have a free table any time soon,” said Eleutério Lameirão in a serious tone that agrees with his solemn name. His small restaurant, located in a residential area of Vila Real, was full of regular customers.

Before we left, we took a glance at the menu and found a quote by Julia Child: “People who love to eat are always the best people.” Inspired by this quote, we decided to wait. Eleutério gave us a puzzled look, but fifteen minutes later he had a table for us.

We ordered rissois, fried breaded dough shaped like a half moon with a shrimp or meat filling. Eleutério brought them to the table and waited around to see our reaction. They were crispy on the outside and full of flavor on the inside.  When we said “wow, these are amazing!” Eleutétio abandoned his shy demeanor and smiled, pleased by our reaction. He went back into the kitchen and brought us a plate of codfish cakes. These were also extraordinary: light, airy and slightly crunchy, a four-part harmony of cod, parsley, egg, and potato.

Finally, we had small sardines called “petingas,” incredibly fresh, fried and seasoned to perfection. They came with an hearty bean rice that melted in the mouth and blended with the salty sardines.

The restaurant was still very busy but Eleutério came to chat with us. He told us that the menu is always small, three or four items made with the best fresh ingredients and modestly priced. The recipes have been refined over many years and require great attention to detail. “It is hard work because there’s no room for distractions. Everything has to be right, the timing, the temperature, the seasoning. But it is worth it because when everything is right the taste is amazing,” he said. If you ever have the privilege of eating at O Lameirão, we think you’ll agree.

The restaurant O Lameirão is located on Rua da Cruz, Vila Real, tel. 259 346 881.

Perfection at Adraga

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When we were very young, our parents used to take us to an idyllic beach with crystal blue waters and natural rock archways sculpted by the sea. In the end of the afternoon, we often had dinner in a small restaurant right on the beach.  It was simple fare: “percebes” (gooseneck barnacles), grilled fish, and salad. But the flavor and aromas were amazing and so was the spectacle of the sun setting on the ocean. We forgot the name of the beach and that is just as well, for places change and fail to live up to our memories of them.

During a visit to Sintra this summer, we decided to have lunch in the nearby Adraga beach. As soon as we arrived, we realized that this was the beach from our childhood!  There were little kids playing in the same rock archways we once loved and bathing in the same blue waters we so much enjoyed.

We sat at the beachside restaurant and ordered “percebes,” grilled fish, and salad. We kept our expectations low. Surely, the food has changed. Then the seafood and fish arrived, fresh, full of flavor, meticulously prepared. It was as if we were going back in time, to a simplicity and authenticity that are so rare today.

We complimented Jorge Pimenta and his mother Suzette, the restaurant owners, on the quality of their food. They responded with modesty: “Everything we do is simple but we try to do it well.  The percebes were caught this morning right on the beach. The fish is very fresh. All we do is respect the ingredients that the sea brings to us.”

The reasonably-priced wine list has many great choices. But in a restaurant where everything is local, it makes sense to drink the magical wine produced nearby in Casal de Santa Maria by a Russian Baron who is 103 years old.

The same family has owned the Restaurante da Adraga for four generations. In the beginning of the 20th century, queen Dona Amélia used to come here to eat fish while the king hunted in the Sintra mountain. One century later, the Adraga restaurant continues to delight anyone who loves great food, whether or not they have royal blood.

Restaurante da Adraga is located at Praia da Adraga, 143, Sintra, tel. 219280028. Reservations are a must. Ask for a table near the windows facing the beach for a spectacular view.

Finding truffles in Bombarral

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Bombarral’s rolling hills offer their vines daily to the sun. In return, the star ripens the grapes so they can make intense, aromatic wines. The region is full of small wineries and traditional restaurants waiting to be discovered.

Our latest find is a restaurant called Dom José. It is named after José Louro who in 1992 left his job in London to open a restaurant in his hometown. His son Nelson told us that “My father used the honorary prefix Dom to name the restaurant, but we don’t have royal blood.”

Nelson was working in London in the real estate industry when, in 2012, his father announced he was selling the restaurant. Nelson quit his job and came to Bombarral to run Dom José. “I have no regrets,” he said. “I like the idea of building on what my father did and making the restaurant better every day.”

The menu offers traditional food prepared with great care using the wonderful ingredients that the region offers. Our meal began with clams bulhão Pato. The clams were succulent and their sauce was a poem to the brilliant simplicity of Portuguese gastronomy. Next, Nelson brought out his version of “fish and chips.” The fish was moist and the batter crisp. The chips were replaced by a hearty bean and spinach rice. The last dish was a wonderful “feijoada” (stewed beans and cabbage) made with black pork. It is so popular that it always on the menu.

We told Nelson that we were too full to venture into dessert territory. “But I saved the best for last,” he said as he placed on the table a plate of chocolate truffles. They melted in our mouths filling our palates with caramel, lime, and chocolate sensations. “Where do you get these magnificent truffles?” we asked. “After I started running the restaurant, my sister Carla left her banking job in London to study with William Curley, a famous British chocolatier. Then, she joined me at the restaurant. Her truffles are a great success. They’re already sold in many gourmet shops and we are starting to export them to England.”

We left the restaurant inspired by the nobility of what Carla and Nelson are doing. And certain that, somewhere in their ancestry, there is royal blood.

Dom José is located at Rua Dr Alberto Martins dos Santos 4, in Bombarral, tel. 262 604 384.